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Engineering Graduate Student Wins Lemelson-MIT Student Prize

Photo of Federico Scurti
Federico Scurti wins the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his work to detect and prevent high temperature superconductor failure.

Federico Scurti, a Ph.D. candidate in North Carolina State University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), has won a $15,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his work in enabling applications of high temperature superconductors (HTS), specifically for inventions to detect and prevent HTS failure.

The Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prize Competition is a nationwide search for the most inventive individual graduate students and undergraduate student teams. The program awarded a total of $90,000 in prizes to three undergraduate teams and four individual graduate student inventors for inventions in healthcare, transportation and mobility, food/water and agriculture, and consumer devices. 

Scurti won in the “Move it!” category for technology-based inventions that improve transportation and mobility.

Specifically, Scurti developed three inventions to detect and prevent failure in HTS. HTS is the best superconducting material for efficient, powerful and carbon-free motors for ships, aircraft and magnetic levitation trains. Superconducting electric motors have a higher current density and smaller or no power losses, which enable them to achieve higher efficiencies and higher power-to-weight ratio than conventional, copper-based motors. HTS can also enable a new concept of compact nuclear fusion reactor for power generation. However, HTS is not used commercially because there was no way to detect or prevent failures. When HTS fails, it generates heat capable of permanently damaging the superconductor and magnet essential to its operation.

Scurti’s primary invention, the SMART Conductor, is an optical fiber embedded within superconducting wire that forms a fully monitored superconducting magnet. The optical fiber can detect and localize a change in temperature or strain in the superconducting wire, and this detection is analyzed in real time to prevent failure. His secondary invention is a composite coating that improves the thermal sensitivity of optical fiber sensors at cryogenic temperatures, which are used in participle accelerators for cancer therapy and physics research. Relatedly, his tertiary invention, “SMART Cables,” monitor and sense failure of high current superconducting cables, which are used in nuclear fusion reactors, particle accelerators and other applications.

His inventions, which are all patented, could lead to a new generation of environmentally friendly and high efficiency transportation systems. They are licensed to the startup company Lupine Materials and Technology, and the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and Department of Energy have all expressed interest in its technologies.

Dr. Alexander Richter, a former Ph.D. student in NC State’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was the first student from a North Carolina school to win a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize when he received the award in 2015.

The Lemelson-MIT Program celebrates outstanding inventors and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. Founded by Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1994, the program is funded by The Lemelson Foundation and administered by the College of Engineering at MIT.

Winners were selected from a large and highly competitive pool of applicants from across the United States. Students were selected based on a variety of factors including: the overall inventiveness of their work, the invention’s potential for commercialization or adoption and youth mentorship experience. Each winning team of undergraduates received $10,000 and each graduate student winner received $15,000.

This story was written by Danielle Herman, Engineering Communications.